Wednesday, November 17, 2010

So Sorry You're Sorry, My Dears

I’m trying to solve a major mystery. Why are so many women around here apologizing?

It’s been going on for years, I now realize, but only lately have I become aware. Perhaps because being Van Winkled means I’m not looking at the covers of People, US, O, and other entertainment and celebrity round-ups in the checkout line I find my thoughts lingering upon other aspects of ye olde supermarket.

Such as what happens back in the aisles whenever I move my steel cart along, flinging odds and ends into it.

I’ll pass a woman, with lots of room to spare, and she’ll look up, notice me rolling or walking past and say, softly, “Oh. Excuse me," or "Sorry."

Excuse you? Sorry? For what?

This even happens outside in the parking lot. The woman in question notices me, belatedly, passing a few feet leeward or starboard of her person.

“Oh. Sorry.”

I should observe that the people who ought to apologize never do. I'm thinking of the seniors who don’t seem to have any idea of what they’re doing except it must be done slo-ow-ly. Usually it’s a mating pair, with the male septuagenarian standing around to supposedly help, but he’s doing nothing but taking up space in the canned vegetable aisle and looking discomfited like a bird that forgot to fly south for the winter or like his wife definitely ought not buy him more pork and beans.

Then there are the other bothersome sorts.

They're talking loudly on cell phones in front of sliding glass doors or their cars are blocking the traffic flow in the parking lot while they keep it in Park, fuss around inside.

From them you'll win the lottery before you get an apology.

Which brings me back to the women in the grocery store (or Wal-Mart or wherever). Apologizing to me as if they've just run over and amputated my left foot. What's up with them?

Theory No. 1
This part of the U.S.A. features wide open spaces. If one leaves the borders of our city he/she will drive two hours in any direction before reaching the next metropolitan area of note. In between lie fields and the occasional town of a few thousand. When the sun sets it looks like it's sinking over a vast ocean, not a settled landscape.

I think it’s possible that being surrounded with so much open land gives our residents a larger sense of what is called  “personal space.”

Personal space is the name social psychologists have applied to the sense a person has of invisible boundaries around their individual body that separates it from the bodies of others. Any penetration of these boundaries may cause anxiety.

My personal space is bigger than your personal space!

When gauging the personal space of people in this part of the nation, it could be instructive to consider how they transport themselves. It’s not unusual to see the women driving pickups and SUVs. I don’t mean “cute” versions of such; I mean fearsome, roadblock busting F-350s, Rams, Titans, Tahoes, Navigators, and Expeditions. The women perch up high in the driver's seat, steering the veritable Conestoga wagons of our age. I also should mention Sierras, Silverados, and Yukons, the very names of which are intended to evoke wide open, unsettled spaces where a human is nearly as rare as a snowflake in the desert.

If one feels the need to surround oneself with such a large total cubic footage of metal and glass enclosure just to go down the road with a couple of kids in the back seat on the way to snagging some french fries and the drycleaning, this could be revelatory as far as declaring the driver's spacious sense of necessary space.

So is it any wonder that when they believe they’ve inadvertently intruded, oh, my gosh, within five feet of my personal space, an apology is tendered?

Theory No.2
This thought is a bit more sinister.

I live south of the Mason-Dixon line and a certain form of politeness is as set into the social fabric as a crease in a pair of pants. I'm thinking this might be another reason why multiple times a week in public settings I am receiving apologies when no offense istaken.

But beyond simple, commendable politeness, I think there may be something to fact that, as I've mentioned, those who apologize are always women; they're never men.  

Could it be the women are communicating a subtext to me as I make a six-inch course correction right-ward to get past where they are hovering in front of the Special K?

So who is this magazine for?
The women, while hardly ugly, are never noticeably made in the super model mode nor do they stand out because they dress with some kind of snap! or bejeweled sparkle. They appear to be among the meek and less noticed in a society that worships assertiveness and glamour. This is why I find myself guessing that I might not be the only person or entity they apologize to in a given day.

Their strong sense that they ought to accommodate even total strangers could reflect that they’re used to being trodden over. Perhaps by men. This thought is not pleasant to me. Especially when I see the women with children in tow. As I view the matter, they shouldn’t be deferring to me. It should be the other way around.

As those women battle the grocery aisles and their kids who have sticky hands and a gimme look in their eyes, we men should spread out coats on the floor and usher them past with all due honor. By necessity, not necessarily choice, some women have become 9-5 hunters, off-hours and weekend gatherers, and full-time mother nurturers all rolled into one. Little wonder they often look harried and like it’s been a long time since they’ve had the kind of life headlined on the Cosmo at the checkout stand. Bubble bath and lacy teddy? Are you kidding?

Looking Down the Wide Open Road
I’ve been thinking that I ought to stop being surprised by these retail apologies. Instead, knowing that such is going to occur, it’s entirely appropriate that I have a prepared response.

She (looking around vaguely, then noticing me going by…):
Oh! Sorry.

Me (smiling, stopping to acknowledge her):
Thank you for being so polite. That’s so rare these days.

She (staring at me): […?]


She (looking around vaguely, then noticing me going by…):
Oh! Sorry.

Me (stopping, startled, then regaining control):
Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s an awfully big planet, but I don't actually need that much of it at one time.

She (staring at me): […?]


She (looking around vaguely, then noticing me going by…):
Oh! Sorry.

Me (stopping long enough to get the metaphorical burden off my chest):
Sorry? Oh no, I'm the one who's sorry. That I interrupted your shopping and your busy life. Please don't worry even one second about me. You are a most worthy human being. Try to remember that and not be sorry for a single other thing for the rest of this day!

She (backing up and knocking over an entire end display of Triscuits): […?!!]

I don’t know. It's probably better to let people be people. I think I'll just keep my mouth shut. – V.W.


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